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07 May 2013

Four Downs: AFC East

by Danny Tuccitto

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback

Over the past three seasons, Buffalo's pass defense hasn't finished higher than 22nd according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric of play-by-play efficiency (explained here), the Bills' pass rush hasn't ranked better than 24th over that span. The offseason spending spree that added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson before the 2012 season probably would have ended the streak if not for Anderson's 11-game absence. (Williams had 10.5 sacks, so he did his part.)

If Anderson returns to his double-digit sack form of 2011, then the only thing standing in the way of an above-average Bills pass defense (finally!) is their underwhelming stable of cornerbacks. Aaron Williams, one of last year's starters, struggled so much that the new coaching staff decided to move him to his more natural position of safety for 2013. The new staff seems to have given Leodis McKelvin's career new life; after two years of contributing in the return game and on nickel downs, Buffalo re-signed McKelvin to a four-year, $20 million contract, and gave him Williams' old job.

Stephon Gilmore, who started 13 games as a rookie, finished 2012 ranked 43rd among cornerbacks in defensive success rate (explained here) per our game charting. As even the most elite corners take a year or two to settle in at the position, we're not too worried about him.

No, what's troublesome is the trickle-down effect of the Williams-McKelvin move: that the Bills appear to be entering next season with Justin Rogers, Ron Brooks, and Crezdon Butler as additional corners on passing downs. For Brooks and (especially) Butler, it's a question of experience. Butler was on Arizona's practice squad before moving to Buffalo, and our game charters only listed him as the primary defender on three passes in 2012. Brooks only played in nine games as a rookie, seeing just 27 passes thrown in his direction. Rogers was the only one of the three to see enough passes (51) to qualify for our defensive success rate rankings, but the 2011 seventh-round pick finished at No. 64.

So, to recap the situation, when Bills opponents go to pass-heavy personnel packages in 2013, the Bills will be fielding Gilmore, a glorified return man, a mediocre former seventh-rounder, and two players trusted to defend only 30 total passes a year ago. Somewhere, Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill are licking their chops.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Most scouts viewed Tennessee Tech's Da'Rick Rogers as a polished receiver with great measurables to boot (6-foot-3, 4.5 40-time, 39.5-inch vertical) who would fall to the third or fourth round because of his off-the-field issues. So whether or not he pans out on the field, Buffalo got incredible value by signing him as an undrafted free agent. In his final year at Tennessee before a suspension and subsequent transfer, Rogers was voted first-team All-SEC, finishing 2011 with 67 catches for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns. As it seems to have been for quite some time, Buffalo's wide receiver depth chart remains nothing special outside of Steve Johnson, so Rogers has a great shot to make the team in 2013. Arguably, he may be even more NFL-ready than Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, whom the Bills spent second- and third-round picks on, respectively.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Left side of offensive line

When the Dolphins traded up to the No. 3 pick, but chose defensive end Dion Jordan over tackle Lane Johnson, it came as quite a shock to both NFL experts and laypersons alike. With perennial Pro-Bowler Jake Long leaving for St. Louis, Miami drafting his replacement was seen as a fait accompli. Instead, the Dolphins decided to proceed with 2012 second-rounder pick Jonathan Martin as Ryan Tannehill's blindside protector.

Martin improved from awful to below average when he took over the left side during Long's injury absence at the end of last season, but he still ended up leading Miami's offensive line (and finishing ninth in the NFL, by our count) with 22.0 blown blocks in pass protection, 6.7 of which resulted in sacks. Coming out of college, one of Martin's main areas of needed improvement was "anchoring against power moves", and sure enough Martin crumpling to the ground in the face of a bull rush by San Francisco's Aldon Smith remains one of the most enduring -- and GIF-able -- epic failures of the 2012 season.

Of course, Martin was a rookie, so perhaps we can give him a pass for his poor game charting stats and sometimes-embarrassing game film. But he's not the only question on the left side. Veteran Richie Incognito really struggled last season. According to our game charting, he led all offensive linemen with 11 blown run blocks last year, and finished with the ninth-most blown block sacks allowed among left guards.

At least the right side of the line looks much more solid now that the Dolphins have signed free-agent veteran Tyson Clabo. That in turn allows third-round pick Dallas Thomas to move to right guard, a position more suited to his talents. He'll compete with ex-Bears guard Lance Louis for the starting job.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

After trading Davone Bess to Cleveland, the top of the Dolphins wide receiver depth chart is chock-full o' big guys: Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Armon Binns, and Rishard Matthews all stand at least six feet tall. To fill their mighty-mite void, Miami signed a pair of smallish players, either of whom could end up being Bess' replacement in the slot. Jasper Collins ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, and put up video game numbers in his senior season at Mount Union, the alma mater of NFL wideouts Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts. The other signing, Chad Bumphis, is stronger but not as fast as Collins, and was Mississippi State's leading receiver in 2012.

New England Patriots

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Pass rush

We could have gone with wide receiver here given that projected starters Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins are worse than the players they replaced. New England drafted two wideouts in the first four rounds of the draft, but rookies usually don't provide substantial value at that position. However, if there's one thing we've learned about the Patriots offense over the past decade, it's that Tom Brady doesn't need elite wide receivers to make things work.

Instead, what seems to have derailed the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes recently is a sub-par pass defense: They haven't finished with an above-average pass defense DVOA since 2007. At times, they have lacked talent in their secondary, but adding Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard in 2012 made that less of an issue, while adding Adrian Wilson and underrated third-round cornerback Logan Ryan this offseason should make the secondary even better.

The other half of pass defense is a different story. New England's lack of a pass rush has been even more of a constant thread over the past several years than poor secondary play: The Patriots pass rush finished 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, and hasn't ranked higher than 15th since 2007. What's more, all they've done to address this is over the past two seasons has been to draft defensive end Chandler Jones last year and outside linebacker Jamie Collins this April.

Both Jones and Collins ranked among the top five pass-rushing prospects of their draft classes according to our SackSEER projections in 2012 and 2013, so it's not like we're down on the specific players New England has added. It's just important to keep in mind that Jones only had six sacks in 13 starts last year, and Collins has recent NFL history working against him. From 2002 to 2012, only 12 players had double-digit sacks during their rookie seasons, and just four of those did so in 11 or fewer starts (Aldon Smith, Mark Anderson, Terrell Suggs, and Dwight Freeney). As Collins will have a hard time cracking New England's starting lineup in 2013, it's unlikely he will be productive enough to bring the Patriots pass defense the pass rush productivity they sorely need.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

White wide receiver stereotype alert! Missouri's T.J. Moe was among New England's 19 signings, and he's already being compared to Wes Welker. (Or is it Danny Amendola? Or maybe Julian Edelman?) At the combine, Moe wasn't fast running in one long, straight line (4.68 40-time), but he was the second-fastest among all positions running in a series of short lines (6.53 three-cone time). He also did more reps on the bench press than any other wideout (26) which suggests he could at least beat the average defensive back in a boxing match. (Note: not Tom Zbikowski.) With the Patriots' aforementioned lack of depth at wide receiver, Moe has a decent chance to make the team this year. But if he really is the second coming of Welker, he'll be waived in Week 2 of his rookie year, and go on to have a great career two NFL stops later.

New York Jets

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Pass catchers

Admittedly, it wasn't groundbreaking when we identified the Jets' biggest hole as"all the offensive skill positions" back in February. Last season, their offense finished 31st in yards per play, 30th in DVOA, and 30th in points scored. Even the most casual of NFL observers could have spotted the problem, to say nothing of the passionate Jets fan base that had to watch the disaster firsthand.

Much to the chagrin of cardiologists and psychiatrists in New York and New Jersey, the Jets addressed the single-most important offensive skill position in last month's draft. Geno Smith may have been the second signal-caller selected, but Football Outsiders' statistics-based Lewin Career Forecast said he was the best quarterback prospect in the 2013 draft class. Last year, that honor went to Russell Wilson, and Smith seemingly has a much easier path to the starting lineup than Wilson did. He's only behind ship-has-sailed Mark Sanchez and body-has-failed David Garrard on the Jets' current depth chart. To boot, recent trends say that NFL teams don't spend top 100 picks on quarterbacks with the intention of stashing them on their benches. Of the 22 quarterbacks selected in the first three rounds since 2009, 17 started at least six games as a rookie, and two of the non-starters were Peyton Manning's backup (Brock Osweiler) and Tom Brady's backup (Ryan Mallett).

That said, it sure would have been nice if the Jets armed Smith with an arsenal of play-making weapons. Instead, a team with such obvious needs in that department only has interior linemen and glorified backup running backs to show for their non-Smith player personnel efforts the past three months. Regarding the latter, Chris Ivory to this point in his career has proven to be a talented runner against defenses focused on stopping the pass. He's also proven that he is an injury waiting to happen. Meanwhile, free-agent addition Mike Goodson has spent most of his four-year career as a returner, and his only year with at least 100 carries (2010) resulted in rankings of 38th in total rushing value and 42nd in rushing value per play out of 54 qualifying running backs.

With Ivory having only three receptions in his career, Goodson figures to be the lone receiving threat out of the backfield. However, going back to that 2010 season with Carolina, he ranked 42nd in total receiving value and 42nd in receiving value per play out of 54 qualifiers. This is significant insofar as new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's pass offense relies heavily on receiving production from running backs (See: LeSean McCoy, Charlie Garner, and Garrison Hearst).

Of course, Mornhinweg's previous stints in Philadelphia and San Francisco have also featured the likes of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Terrell Owens, and Jerry Rice. No such polished talents at wide receiver or tight end reside on the Jets roster at the moment. Football Outsiders' Playmaker Score projection system viewed Stephen Hill as the best wide receiver prospect of the 2012 draft, but he's now tasked with adapting to his second offense in two seasons. Elsewhere, among 82 qualifying wide receivers, Jeremy Kerley finished 2012 ranked 59th in total value and 64th in value per play, Santonio Holmes' Week 1 status is uncertain due to the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2012 season, and tight end Jeff Cumberland is no Dustin Keller.

While it's more so the case that quarterbacks make their receivers than vice versa, one would be hard-pressed -- without the help of the internet -- to find more than a handful of quarterbacks who succeeded with the likes of Holmes, Hill, Kerley, Cumberland, and Goodson on the other end of their passes. Whether Sanchez manages the unlikely feat of starting all 16 games or Smith gets his inevitable opportunity as a rookie, it's hard to imagine the 2013 Jets offense exceeding their two 30-point games in 2012.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Rather than throwing serious resources at wide receiver and tight end this offseason, the Jets instead signed six such players as undrafted free agents. And given the state of those two positions on the depth chart, there's serious potential for at least two of them to make the team in August. Pittsburgh's Mike Shanahan, who played wide receiver at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, will be moving to tight end in what, for all the world, looks like an attempt to replace Keller. Meanwhile, Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola had the second-most receiving yards in school history, ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the combine, and jumped 37 inches high at his pro day. Those are the kind of stats that Playmaker Score really likes; on the other hand, he went to Lehigh.

(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Danny Tuccitto on 07 May 2013

25 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2013, 1:21am by sahawilliam


by Led :: Tue, 05/07/2013 - 5:01pm

Seems inconsistent to dismiss Ivory's small sample size success (which is backed by good FO numbers and a history of high rates of broken tackles) because of his supporting cast but then take Goodson's FO numbers when he was on Carolina (i.e., worst offensive in the league with the decaying remains of Jake Delhomme at QB and one of the weakest OL according to ALY) at face value. Isn't that just cherry picking?

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 9:05pm

The article did not dismiss Ivory, except to note that he had only 3 career pass catches amd a history of injuries. Can you spell "overreaction"?

by Led :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 6:29am

"Regarding the latter, Chris Ivory to this point in his career has proven to be a talented runner against defenses focused on stopping the pass."

by joe football (not verified) :: Tue, 05/07/2013 - 5:50pm

Holmes and Hill don't seem that bad. Two former first round picks, one had a 1200 yard season and the other as noted is a physical marvel. I'm sure everything will be fine once the great Geno Smith steps in

Also, youtube is a terrible way to present a playmaker score article

by are-tee :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 2:05pm

Agreed. And I honestly believe that if Kerley played with a Brady, Manning, Rodgers, etc. instead of Sanchez he would easily be a 1,000 yard receiver.

by JonFrum :: Tue, 05/07/2013 - 6:12pm

While I'm as frustrated by the Patriots lack of pass rush as any fan, I have to stick up for Chandler Jones. While he did start 13 games, he wasn't the same after he spent time out with an injury. Right before he was injured, he was getting talk for DROY. When he came back, he was more like JAG. I suspect he was never really healthy after he came back. I was hoping they'd sign Abraham to work the other side, but it looks like it won't happen.

by Nathan :: Tue, 05/07/2013 - 5:58pm

Chandler Jones may have had only 6 sacks in 13 starts last year but he showed flashes of dominance until he injured and re-injured his ankle(s). All 6 of those sacks (and his 3 forced fumbles) were in his first 8 games. Week 9 was the Pats bye and he injured his ankle in week 11 and wasn't the same player for the rest of the year. When he was healthy he passed the eye test with flying colors. He was in the backfield all the time. I thought he looked like a DROY candidate until he got hurt.

by MJK :: Tue, 05/07/2013 - 10:50pm

Also, I think the lack of pass rush for the Pats had as much to do with poor DB play as it did with pass rushers.

by Theo :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 8:48am

Then there's a lack of results of the pass rush, but the pass rush is still there.

Or do you mean extra guys were needed in coverage which cost men available for the pass rush?

by PatsFan :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 5:10pm

I think he means that since the pass coverage sucked, QBs could get rid of the ball quickly, depriving the rush of time to get to the QB. Good coverage will force the QB to hold the ball longer.

by RickD :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 5:38pm

That's been my impression of the state of affairs.

The front seven is pretty good, even at rushing the passer.

by JonnyD (not verified) :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 7:01am

Can someone explain this sentance: "with 22.0 blown blocks in pass protection, 6.7 of which resulted in sacks."

How can 0.7 of a blown block result in a sack? Or is it 22 blown blocks resulted in 6.7 sacks? either way I cant understand the 0.7 arent blocks either recorded as 1 or 0.5? Or are the blown bloacks charted as 0.7 on the LT and 0.3 on the LG? Whichever way you look at it it seems arbitrary to me.

by Mike Ridley :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 8:38am

If three linemen are credited with a blown block on a play resulting in a sack, they each receive .33 (rounded to .3) sacks allowed. So when two of these instances happen to the same player, he's credited with .66 (rounded to .7) sacks allowed.

by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 2:24pm

Yes. There are only a handful of "one-third" blown blocks. Most of them are either full-credit or half-credit.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 2:43pm

" What's more, all they've done to address this is over the past two seasons has been to draft defensive end Chandler Jones last year and outside linebacker Jamie Collins this April."

And sign a bunch of CFL FAs, sign a bunch of vets, etc. They've done a ton to try to address it.

by RickD :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 5:40pm

In particular, I'd be interested if anybody had any impression of Armond Armstead.
He's at least as experienced as Collins.

by johonny (not verified) :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 5:35pm

Given that Richie Incognito is also a 15 yrd penalty generator: why is he still on this team for 4.9 million a year?

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 9:09pm

Because his production outweighs his penalties? I don't know, I'm just guessing...

by Insancipitory :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 10:46pm

Sadly, I think his penalty rate when way down. Which is terrible, because man, when he was getting 3 holds, 2 offsides, and 2 personal fouls a game it was hilarious to hear his name announced.

by CBPodge :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 4:40am

As that was happening when he was on the Rams, I can confirm that its only hilarious when it isn't happening to your team.

by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 7:26pm

This is hard to imagine given what the article says about his productivity.

by trevor (not verified) :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 1:45pm

It's frustrating that the names Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead did not make it into the section on the Patriots pass rush.

So often it's just the linebacks and defensive ends that get the credit for creating pressure but as we've seen with teams playing against the Patriots, interior pressure is vitally important as well. Wilfork does it but he needs support: Kelly and Armstead.

I think the Patriots got a lot more help in the "Pass Rush" category then they are given credit for. And, the secondary will be much improved which will just help the PR even more. Devin McCourty could qualify as one of the Top 3 best safeties in the league next season.

by Rivers McCown :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 6:07pm

Keep in mind that these things are written on a pretty strict word count. We can't mention every player that matters.

by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Fri, 05/10/2013 - 11:11am

Sure, but then why use those words to insinuate that nothing else was done? "All they've done to address it" makes it pretty clear that you aren't leaving guys off due to word count issues, but that there aren't other guys to mention.

Beyond that, labeling Mike Jenkins as a starter is absurd. He has about a 3% chance of even making the team.

There is little dispute that receiver and pass rush appear to be defining elements of this coming season, but you definitely have some misstatements in there.

by sahawilliam :: Mon, 10/28/2013 - 1:21am

good to see Four Downs: AFC East:
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